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So, What’s Water Got To Do With Girls’ and Womens’ Rights?

 “We do not have time for education. Our whole day is consumed in household chores and mostly fetching water…” [i]  

Have you ever thought about how water effects your rights?  In my daily life in the northern hemisphere I turn on a tap and I have access to water.  It is simply there and I do not have to think about it.  This has been the case all through my life from the age of being a girl to an adult woman.   When I think about water I do not think that it might put me at greater risk of gender based violence.  When I was a young girl I did not associate lack of access to water with a potential end to my education, nor did I think that if I was born a girl in a different region of the world it might mean that I would be forced into early marriage.

However, this is not the case for all women and girls across the world.  Safe access to clean water is not part of everyday life.  Girls are exposed to many rights violations on account of being young and female and this is particularly true when safe access to water is not available close to their homes.   Let’s take a closer look at how water impacts the daily life of Rose[ii], a 11 year old girl from Niger in Western Africa…

Young girls from Niger

My name is Rose and I would like to share with you my story about water. 

At 5am I need to get up and leave the house to collect the water for the day.  This is one of my many daily chores as a girl.  Sometimes I feel bad because I am tired from fetching the water, it is heavy and the well near to our hose is often dry so I have to walk to the next village.  There is nearly always a long line to collect the water, sometimes this is nice as some of my friends from the next village are there and we get the chance to chat.  But sometimes men look at us in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable and unsafe.  When this happens I am scared I have heard of other girls who have been caught by these men on the way home. 

When I get home I need to wake my brother so he knows he can wash before school.  We have breakfast and then we set out on the walk to school.  I like to walk with my brother as I feel safe when he is with me.  After school my brother stays out in the village with his friends to play.  I return to the house to get the pails to fill up with water.  When I get home I help my mother to boil the rice and after we eat I use the rest of the water to wash the plates. By the time I sit down to look at my homework I am tired.  My brother has finished his and is listening to the radio.  I am so tired that I only do some of the work as I find it hard to concentrate.  I know I am falling behind in my school and I feel bad about that.    My brother helps me with my homework when he can.  He also wants me to finish my education; he does not want me to be married off at 13 like some of the other girls in the village.  He is very worried about this as they say the drought is coming and when this happened two years ago our uncle did not have enough money to feed everyone in the family so he sent our cousin Faith to be married to a man in another village.  She was 14.  Faith was very sad as she had to leave her family and leave school but her uncle said they had no choice as the drought meant they had not enough food and water for the family.  It was a long time before she came back to our village to visit and when she did she had a little daughter called Hope.  

I want to finish school like my brother and would like to have a job one day where I can earn some money and make good choices for my future.  I wish we had more wells in our village then I could have more time to work on my homework.  When I have to walk long distances to the next villages to get water I wish they had some lights on the roads so I could feel safer in the early morning and late evening.  I wish that people looked out for us girls around the wells and on the long walks so that bad things would not happen to us like they have to other girls from our villages.  I wish that the long drought will not come and last a long time.  I wish not to have the same story as my cousin Faith and have to be married to a man in another village and have a baby when I am still only a young girl.  I wish that we always could have safe access to clean water in our village so I could finish my education. More than anything I want an education; it is my path to my future.

Author:  Jean Casey is the project coordinator of “The State of the Worlds Girls” report at Plan International.

[i] Abdul Shakoor Sindhu “Climate Cha(lle)nge Children: a new perspective on climate change in Pakistan”, Plan Pakistan and RDI. (2012).  Quote is from a young girl interviewed in this study.

[ii] Rose is a fictitious character; her story with water is based on the writer’s experience and analysis of interviewing young girls in Niger in November 2012 for the 2013 State of the Worlds girls forthcoming report  on Adolescent girls and Emergencies by Plan International.

International Day of the Girl – reflections from the girls report

October 11th 2012 – the first international day of the girl – all over the world Plan International who had campaigned for the day, launched their Because I am a Girl campaign for girls’ rights. Public buildings were bathed in pink, celebrities pledged support and Plan also launched the 6th State of the World’s Girls report, Learning for Life. It focuses on the importance of a quality education for girls, not just enrolment at primary school, but 9 years in school able to learn something useful.  And give them the skills the knowledge and the confidence that will enable young women to be active citizens, with decent jobs, forming equal relationships with partners and family.

Meanwhile one of my colleagues, Nikki van der Gaag, who will be writing the 7th Girls’ Report, came back from Pakistan, a long way from the pink London Eye or Empire State building,  with a story that illustrates why campaigning for girls’ rights is so important. And why adolescence, a time when for many of us life opened up, is so crucially important –  12 year old girls in many parts of the world find themselves enclosed in a domestic world going from child to “woman” virtually overnight.

Sharon Goulds.  Girls Report Project Lead.  October 2012.

The invisible girls

As we drive along the road early in the morning, small groups of girls in blue and white uniforms hold hands as they walk to school. But they are almost the only females we see, apart from the occasional woman in the fields whose brightly coloured back is bent over picking rice or cutting grass that she carries in an enormous bundle on her back.

Otherwise it is only men and boys who are in the streets. Gathered in small groups, drinking tea, stretched out on charpai (traditional string beds), breaking bricks, or weaving motorbikes dangerously in and out of the traffic in the towns.  The holders of the carts selling orange mangoes, shiny apples and tempting watermelons yell at them, as do the drivers of the brightly coloured painted trucks. The only other woman I see is on the back of one of the motorbikes, completely covered in a white burqa with a little bobble on the top that is the custom in this area of the Punjab.

We drive off the main road and bump through vivid green rice fields and over small culverts. I know by now there will be a protocol to my visits. When I arrive, the men and perhaps a few boys will meet me first. I will ask some questions, they will decide if they are happy for me to continue on to meet the women.

I will then go on to where a group of perhaps 50 or 60 women and a few girls are waiting for me. Their clothes are a rainbow of colours; they are dressed in their best.  The women’s leaders sit at the front and are the ones who speak. The very old are there too, and the very young, and almost everyone in between. Hordes of children run around, peek over walls, giggling, or sneak in for a hug with their mothers or grandmothers.

But time and again, the one group I really want to meet is absent. From the age of 12 until they are married, often by the time they are 15, sometimes at 18, the girls stay in their homes. ‘Too much work to do to meet you,’ say the older women. ‘They are busy in the house.’

So at first I try and talk to the 12 year olds. But in the five villages I visit in southern Sindh and central Punjab, there are no schools for girls – and precious few for boys as well. The girls struggle to speak in front of a big group.  Latifan, from Ghulam Husain Bohrio village in Sindh, hides behind her blue scarf and says she thinks she is about 12. She has two sisters and one brother. She is hugely embarrassed to be speaking even in front of other women and girls. No, she hasn’t been to school but she can read Qur’an. Her day consists of fetching water – there are only two handpumps for the whole village and often these are broken so she has to walk to the river about half a kilometre away – washing up, washing clothes, reading Qur’an, looking after her younger siblings and sewing and doing embroidery. She is not interested in playing games, she says, she has too much to do. Her father is often away fishing and her mother looks after their animals and sometimes has to take them away from the house so she is very busy.

I am finally allowed to talk to the girls between 14 and 20. We leave the meeting house, cross a ditch on a little bridge and enter a bare room with a bed that is someone’s house. We sit on a beautifully embroidered bedspread, quilted by one of the girls, and a group of around 10 young women squat on the floor in front of us. We are there on condition we don’t take any photos.  They tell me a little about their lives, which sound very similar to Latifan’s.

I ask them how their lives are different from their brothers’, and they giggle behind their scarves before telling me that some of their brothers go to school, some spend their time lounging about, but many learn to fish with their fathers from an early age. ‘We don’t feel different from them, says Zeinab, ‘We are both busy. And when they are out fishing their lives are hard while we are in the home and safe.’

How safe is another question. We have been given statistics about the numbers of women and men, boys and girls in the villages. Normally you would expect slightly more girls than boys, but in the first village we visit, there are 100 boys but only 77 girls. But no-one seems to be able to give us an explanation.  Perhaps this is because, unlike in other countries, in Pakistan, this is the norm. It is one of the few countries in the world where men and boys outnumber women and boys. And there seems to be agreement among academics and analysts that this is not because girls are aborted or killed at birth as they are in some other countries, but simply that the preference for sons means that girls are neglected and die before they reach puberty. In addition, rates of violence against women are extremely high. Statistics for Oxfam’s We Can Campaign against violence against women show that 80 per cent of women in Pakistan experience domestic violence, though no-one here will talk about it.

Few of the girls in Ghulam Husain Bohrio village have ever been to Jati, the nearest town a few kilometres away – except when they were forced to leave in 2010 by the floods.  Their lives are not very different from their mothers’ and grandmothers’, they say. They have no electricity or television, though they occasionally listen to the radio – for news, they say, looking at their elders from under their eyelashes, which makes us think it is probably to listen to music. Some of their fathers have mobile phones, but they have never used them. ‘We get married early, at 15 or 16, says Zeinab ‘and then we are too busy for much else.’

Nikki van der Gaag October  2012.

Reach for the Stars

 

This was recently posted on Woman Deliver. I’m re-posting it here! 

A narrow one-way lane leads to a dirt track about 5 hours south of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. To one side of this dirt track sits a small one room shack where Srey Pha, her elder brother, younger brother and parents all live together. Srey Pha’s mother, Hean Ra, couldn’t attend school because she had to help her mother with the house chores and take care of her younger siblings. When she was 16, a local farmer who knew her parents asked for her hand in marriage. After a year of steady pressure by her parents, she relented and agreed to marry a man 10 years her senior. She now hopes her daughter will have a better future. “I advise my daughter to study hard, I tell her if you don’t study you will regret it, end up like me. I want her to be a teacher or a health worker”.


This is the story of one family, but it is also the experience of thousands of families across the globe in many poor countries. Parents who have little education, who cannot read or write, and are struggling to put food on the table – always hope their children will have a better life. The importance of education in determining life choices is clear to those who live in places where schooling is all that stands between them and a life of deprivation. And the importance of sending girls to school is clear to their mothers who understand that schooling equates to decision making power. And it’s clear to us that the only way to ensure Srey Pha along with tens of millions of other girls who should be in primary school receive the education they deserve, requires a global campaign. This is why with 75 years of development programming under our belt, Plan International has launched a campaign to ensure all girls can access and enjoy their right to an education.

Parents make sacrifices so they can send all their children to school. But these struggles and choices are not free from value judgments. If parents can only afford to send one child to school, they will choose to send their son to school instead of sending their daughter, because they believe she will marry one day and the returns on her education will be transferred to her husband’s family. Proverbs such as ‘educating your daughter is like watering another man’s garden’ depict the general attitude in many regions about girls schooling. And yet we know the only way to ensure sustainable changes in health and livelihoods, is by educating girls who will one day be mothers and transfer all the gains of their education onto their children.

Changing attitudes is a slow process. But by changing legislation and policy where necessary, and mobilizing girls and boys, families and decision makers at all levels to support the call for girls empowerment – lasting change can and will be achieved. Through community engagement at the grass roots level, by fostering dialogue and encouraging discussion on issues that have till now been taboo, such as early and forced marriage, Plan is opening a space for change. Our work at the local level is joined by our international efforts and together we believe the ‘Because I am a Girl’ movement will transform the lives of millions. Not just the girls who directly benefit from our efforts and support, but their families, their communities and ultimately their entire country.

We are proud to be one of the top 10 advocacy and policy campaigns to be chosen by Women Deliver, and our faithful supporters, for the 101st International Women’s Day. Our success is the hope of millions of girls who are already benefitting from Plan’s programs in over 68 countries. We invite partners, campaigners and activists to join our movement and change girl’s lives. It’s up to us all to make sure Srey Pha and girls like her across the globe get the chance to fulfill their dreams and reach for the stars.

Keshet Bachan

Mommyrexia

A recent article in the NY Post introduced me to a new trend taking over Hollywood and Manhattan called “Mommyrexia”. In essence this trend involves famous or rich women who starve themselves and perform dangerous levels of exercise while they are pregnant in order to stay slim (see Victoria Beckham). Obviously this is an alarming phenomena, not just for these poor women caught up in a web of social pressures that don’t allow them to step out of the restrictive corset of modern perfection for even a minute. but this is also alarming considering the tens of thousands of women and girls who consider these celebrities icons worth emulating.

For those of you unfamiliar with Naomi Wolf’s famous book called ‘The Beauty Myth’ here is a short synopsis from The Guardian: (but do make an effort to pick it up at your nearest bookstore!)

“Wolf argues that beauty is the “last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact”. Somehow we’ve been flogged the idea that to be beautiful (which we must, or else no one will love us) we have to look a certain way: thin, youthful, smooth-skinned, small-nosed, silky-haired, etc. Hey presto: your average woman feels ugly her entire life, and old, too, for most of it. What better way of keeping her in her place?

Wolf uses the phrase “cultural conspiracy”; it’s hard to imagine exactly who the conspirators might be. Then big money makes an entrance, and it all gets nice and clear: women who feel old and ugly will buy things they do not need. An “anti-ageing” cream, say, or a blouse very little different from the blouses they already have.”

and there it is, neatly summed up. Our obsession with looking a certain way, which is sold to us on billboards and in women’s magazines, is not just restricting our sense of self worth, its motivating us to be consumers. Wolf goes on to argue that this obsession also takes up a lot of our ‘free’ time, so when we’re not working and taking care of our children and our homes, we are spending energy beautifying ourselves (which is a futile task really considering our ideal beauty is unrealistically airbrushed; see here for a short film on this issue).  Wolf calls this our ‘third and fourth shift’, and claims it keeps women busy with looking pretty which means they have no time to politically organize themselves and claim their rights.

But this restrictive notion of ‘beauty’ is doing more than take up our time and money. It’s keeping us from fully owning our bodies. Make no mistake, this is not a new phenomena. As any veteran feminist will tell you, fighting to keep ‘our bodies, ourselves’ is a struggle that has been going on since the late 60’s. and yet here we are, decades later, fighting the same battle with the only ammunition we have – our common sense! Let’s hope it prevails.

Keshet Bachan

Pretty Goddamn Awful

Today TrustLaw published a survey they conducted with over 230 women’s rights activists to try to determine the most dangerous place to be a woman (disclosure: I participated in this survey). The results showed that the worst place in the world to be a woman is Afghanistan, closely followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo (you’re allowed to snort derisively at this use of the word democratic), then Pakistan, India and Somalia. The survey received positive media attention propelling the issues of violence and discrimination against women to the top of the international agenda (for a short while at least). Generating global media interest in violence against women is not an easy task and I would like to applaud TrustLaw for this great result.

Of course, critics of this survey were quick to point out their reservations. In this piece in The Salon, columnist Natasha Lennard questions the basic methodology and validity of the survey pointing out that TrustLaw gives no information about who these women’s rights activists are and how they were selected. She also claims it is not clear from the survey questions posed what was meant by the use of words like ‘rape’ and ‘domestic abuse’ saying these can take on “many forms”. Maybe this is why TrustLaw approached experts for their survey? Cause you need at least a PhD in Gender and 20 years in the field to understand what rape means. Not.

The article also questions the framing of the survey which uses the word ‘danger’ in such a way that it “was always going to point to Non-Western countries as the most dangerous for women”. Lennard then recommends Lila Abu-Lughod’s article ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving’ and ends her piece by suggesting the survey was both racist and culturally insensitive.

Let’s take a moment and think about how unfair it is that a survey is saying Afghanistan is a terrible place for women. I mean, it’s not like life for women in Afghanistan is worse than it is in France or Argentina, right?!?

Oh, no, wait a minute!

Yes it is.

In fact, abuses against women in Afghanistan are pretty goddamn awful.

So women’s rights activists felt the need to name the country and shame it into taking action.

So what?!

Women’s rights are non-negotiable, they don’t end when conflict begins, they don’t bargain with culture and religion, and they sure as hell don’t pack their bags and leave cause someone calls them ‘insensitive’.

I haven’t read Abu-Lughod’s article, but I’m guessing the answer to her questions is: ALL women really need saving. Nowhere in the world are we safe from violence, abuse and discrimination. But you know what? some places are much (much) worse than others.

It doesn’t even matter if the survey is scientifically accurate or not.

It’s a wake up call!

The survey is telling us that not enough is being done, not enough is being said, and not enough people are taking action to prevent abuses against women. The survey is pointing out to a terrible tragedy that we don’t care about at all. And instead of being horrified by the reality of everyday life for girls in Somalia, who have a higher chance of dying in childbirth than they do of completing secondary school, Lennard cries ‘racism’.

Well, I for one am glad that someone had the nerve to carve a small space for women out of a busy male controlled media agenda. Even if maternal mortality in Sierra Leon is worse than it is in Afghanistan and more girls are trafficked in China than they are in India. At least the conversation has begun, and it’s being conducted within a strong legal rights framework which is a rare treat in this day and age of instrumentalist (‘gender equality is smart economics’) arguments.

Keshet Bachan

Lived Experience

That’s a term we used a lot during my gender masters studies. It basically means that as a researcher you acknowledge that the first hand account of someone living in a minority or oppressed group is a valid form of knowledge. As a gender equality researcher I find myself using this term when discussing case-studies, ethnographic interviews or any other small scale evidence gathering exercises.

Although donors love the big numbers, anyone with an ounce of sense knows that people living in poverty don’t think of themselves as belonging to the ‘lowest quintile of wealth’. The same is true for girls growing up in a culture that forces them to marry early or denies them the opportunity to go to school. These girls experience discrimination, but don’t necessarily think of themselves as disadvantaged or even abused. In many ways grouping them under one indicator, such as early marriage, is simply a categorization that doesn’t do justice to the many intersecting identities and pressures and cultures and issues that they experiences growing up as girls. Therefore, as a feminist researcher, it is important to delve into the ‘world’ of your research subject and to accurately portray the many layers that make up their lives and their choices.

At the same time I find myself falling into the trap of ‘killer facts’ all the time. The big numbers, the millions and tens of millions; the out of schools, the FGM victims, the living on the street, the maternal mortalities; you name it. And more often than not as a researcher in a large NGO I’m asked to generate these facts. I’m told that a quote is not evidence. That a story can add color, and ‘hey even policy makers at the World Bank are people, right?’ But it’s not proof. So I spend my time running after household surveys and school based questionnaires. And people, children, boys and girls, become ‘target groups’, and they stop being real. They are a number, a fact, a case.

And then I get an email, on Saturday morning, telling me one of our research subjects has had a terrible accident. She drowned in a river and her father couldn’t get there fast enough to save her. She was only five.

This girl had a voice. And she used it to tell us her story. It was a story of a loving family, struggling with poverty. It was a story of a small girl who couldn’t wait to start school and who loved playing with her friends by the river. And I dare anyone to tell me her story is not evidence. And her words are not proof.

Keshet Bachan

A Great Difference in My Life

This guest blog post was written by Fabiola, a 17 year old girl from Cameroon who flew (for the first time in her life!) to NY to participate in the 55th UN Commission on the Status of Women. Fabiola was part of a Plan led Girl Delegation which took part in high level panels, side events and caucuses. This post appears complete in its original format. you can read another girl-delegate blog here.

 

I am called Fabiola; I am 17 years old and first child out of three and the only girl. I come from Cameroon and from a rural area where girls faced a lot of problems when it comes to children’s participation. I was very happy and excited when I was chosen in our YETAM (Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media) project to represent my school, community, Plan and Cameroon as a whole in New York City to speak out during the 55th session of the UN conference on the Commission of the Status of women.  One thing I was scared when I was still in Cameroon was the plane because I always hear of plane crash and I was not courageous but when we had to enter the plane, I prayed very hard. When the plane was to take off my heart bit very fast like I met a masquerade and as the plane fly higher I felt better since I adapted to it. I had so many experiences in the plane because I always heard that there is a toilet in the plane but saw it physically. In all, it was a great experience travelling by plane.

We arrived in New York City on the 18th February 2011 at exactly 12noon. I could not imagine myself being in New York for 01 week with the snow and cold. When we took a car I felt a little better and safely we were in UN Millennium Plaza Hotel where we were lodged. We met with Kate Ezzes the Youth Engagement Manager from Plan USA at the Hotel and she facilitated our booking.  There were about seven different countries who were to come to US but we the delegation from Cameroon were the first to arrive New York. It was fun eating American food for the first time.

My experience in New York City was quite different from my real life because I got to learn and know so many things. I was the first girl who had to speak in the event out of 14 girls because their presentation was to start on Monday. My first presentation was not that easy because I was nervous but had courage and self esteem since I had experience presenting in other events at local and national levels in my country. However, this was my first time to participate in an event out of my country. I became excited at the end of my first presentation which took place on Sunday 20th. I gained self confidence because everyone was impressed with the way I presented and I also let the voice of young people especially girls to be heard. This gave me courage to take part in so many side events where I had to talk from my own experience on the participation of girls in ICTs (Information Communication and Technology), Science and Mathematics.  I met with girls from different parts of the world during the side events where I learnt many things on their perception of girls in ICTs, which was very different from mine. I got to know from the girls that there are different problems faced by girls in their society. I got to know their manner of approach. It was a great pleasure meeting with girls from around the world. 

I was happy taking part in different side events because it was through this opportunity that I had to meet with important personalities from different NGOs like Plan International, Unicef and Girls scouts at Unicef building. I never knew that, attending the United Nations conference was a great opportunity for me which has made a great difference in my life. I can better express myself in public with no fear. I will continue through our YETAM project to advocate on the right of girls and also encourage the participation of girls in ICTs, science and Mathematics in my school and my community. Through this conference, I got to know so many great people like the Canadian Minister, the development officer of the United Republic of Tanzania, Grace Mwangwa just to name a few. I think this conference has made a great difference in my life which I will live to remember.        

Fabiola

You can also see Fabiola speak on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/user/UNGEI#p/a/u/1/_zEfWX7RIOw

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